The Animators

Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses first met in Introduction to Sketch class at the Ballister Art Institute, a school populated mostly by the wealthy. Mel and Sharon, with their rural poor origins, were out of place until they found each other and quickly became friends and collaborators. Their collaboration extended past college when their partnership turned into a career in animation. Their oddball, often highly personal cartoons garnered them a cult following in the animation world, and their film based on Mel’s life, Nashville Combat, grew their reputation.

At first, Mel appears to be the star of the partnership. Their big movie was made from her life, after all. And she has the whole troubled artist thing down, drinking, doing drugs, and even causing a scene during an important panel. Sharon is the stable one who keeps the work on course. At least that’s how it seems.

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel depicts a complex friendship, colored by love and jealousy and sometimes even fear. And all of this is layered with ideas about art and who gets to tell certain stories.

As friends and collaborators, Mel and Sharon have created their own world together, where they set the schedule and make the rules. They do what they need to do for their art. But there’s a dark side to it. Mel doesn’t tell her mother, who is in prison and figures heavily in Nashville Combat about the movie, and when her mother suddenly dies, she never gets to find out whether her mother knew about it or what she might think.

Mel’s mom’s death is only one way that life intervenes to break down Mel and Sharon’s world. Sharon, the steadying force, has a major health crisis that nearly kills her and makes drawing such a struggle it’s not clear she can return to work. The crisis brings back some dark memories, and Mel encourages Sharon to use that to bring back her art. This puts both of them on a journey Sharon doesn’t want to take.

One of the joys of this book is how the story turns and turns again. I thought it was going to be an odd couple sort of tale because despite their shared origins in poverty and cartooning talent, Mel and Sharon are set up as opposites, right down to their appearance. Sharon is buxom and brunette and wears cocktail dresses to events while Mel is tall and blonde and prefers suits. Sharon is straight, and Mel is a lesbian. Sharon stays on the outside, and Mel seeks the spotlight. But the story is so much more interesting than a story of contrasts. Yes, these two women are different from each other, but what’s important is that they’re committed to each other, even when it aches. This is a book that takes friendship seriously.

The book also takes art seriously and raises hard questions about the implications of making art, especially when it is inspired by life. Mel has no compunctions in this area, but Sharon is more cautious. But it is by making art, even dangerous and painful art, that Sharon is able to get free of some darker aspects of her past. Still, there are problems with how that art touches others.

I have some small quibbles about aspects of the book, but mostly I loved it. Reading it really made me long for more good contemporary books about people from rural areas. (I would be more comfortable with certain rural tropes, including some in this book, if I could be confident that readers saw plenty of rural stories that didn’t include those elements.) Mostly, though, I want serious, complex books about friendship. This was an excellent example of the kind of story I’d like to see more of. I will warn you, though; the last 50 pages or so had me sobbing. But I like sobbing books, too.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 1 Comment

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond’s ethnographic study of the housing crisis among the poor in Milwaukee has won multiple awards, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s easy to see why. Desmond lived in a trailer park and then in an inner-city rooming house, getting to know the renters and their landlords and learning about the crises that led to eviction and how difficult it was for the evicted to get back on their feet.

The book follows eight families through the struggle to find and keep secure housing. These aren’t perfect people. Some have addictions, some commit acts of violence, and others just make big errors in judgment, but the mistakes and their penalties create a situation that these families cannot seem to escape, even when they do everything right. Once you’ve been evicted, it’s hard to get another home because that eviction sullies your record. The landlords who will rent to people who’ve been evicted often charge high rents for terrible homes that they don’t bother repairing. And what happens if a tenant reports the landlord for the shoddy conditions? Another eviction.

There’s so much in this book to get angry about. For instance, 911 services can charge landlords a fee if their tenants make “nuisance” calls. And those fees give landlords a reason to evict. So women are afraid to call 911 in cases of domestic abuse because they could lose their homes! Another problem is that is perfectly fine to refuse housing to families with children, meaning mothers (fathers, too, but usually mothers) get turned down repeatedly.

The families and individuals in this book—some with children and some without—tend to drift from home to home, finding housing only to get kicked out, sharing with neighbors or even virtual strangers, staying in shelters. Rarely did they end up entirely on the street, but they still lack the stability that’s needed to maintain a job, good health, and a general sense of well-being. Children have to change schools frequently, if they go to school at all.

Desmond tells these stories with detachment, avoiding the first-person until the epilogue, where he explains his methods. He provides extensive notes for the research he cites, and he also indicates in the endnotes when he’s describing in incident he didn’t observe himself. The research appears to be meticulous, and it’s only near the end of the book that he steps back to talk solutions. For most of the book, he focuses on showing the scope of the problem.

Because Desmond spends so much time with the people he writes about, he’s able to present a multi-faceted view of their lives, showing how they dream of doing better and sometimes manage for a short time. And he doesn’t pretend that they get everything right, but he puts the mistakes in context, as when he tells the story of one woman, Larraine, who spend almost all of her food stamps for the month on a lobster dinner. It was a celebratory dinner on her anniversary with her late husband, and, for her, it was worth it. Desmond writes,

People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those in the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobsters on food stamps.

Reading this, I found it hard to begrudge Larraine some lobster on her anniversary.

Toward the end of the book, Desmond starts talking solutions, focusing mostly on housing vouchers that would enable tenants to pay no more than one-third of their income on rent. I don’t know if this is the best solution, but the book makes clear that something needs to be done. The housing crisis affects not just those who lose their homes but also those in their neighborhoods. Neighborhoods require investment from residents, people looking out for each other. And that includes landlords. The landlords Desmond talks to are trying to make a living, which is fair, but the system allows them to get away with unfair practices that amount to exploitation. Getting at the root problem in a way that is fair to both landlords and tenants is a challenge, but it’s an essential one to tackle.

This is an excellent book, even if it left me rather overwhelmed with the scope of the problem. I’m not sure what I can do with the knowledge, but I hope that at least it will help me be a more informed citizen. When you read books like this, what do you do with that knowledge?

Posted in Nonfiction | 8 Comments

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time

I’ve been an avid listener to On the Media for several years. I listened whenever I could when it was only on the radio, and it was among the first podcasts I subscribed to. And, right now, I consider it more essential than ever. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are brilliant at putting the news in context, looking at what media coverage is getting right and where it’s falling short. So when I saw Brooke Gladstone was writing a new book about “our current moment,” I had to request an e-galley.

The Trouble with Reality is short—the print version is only 97 pages—and it’s not a work of hard-hitting journalism. It is exactly what it says in the subtitle a “rumination.” Gladstone looks at our “brave new world” of “alternative facts” and “fake news” and considers how we got here. When did facts become debatable? How did blatant lies become acceptable?

One point that she makes early on is that truth has always been up for debate. She writes,

Part of the problem stems from the fact that facts, even a lot of facts, do not constitute reality. Reality is what forms after we filter, arrange and prioritize those facts and marinate them in our values and traditions.

Everyone has a bias, and our bias determines how we interpret facts. And facts that contradict our worldview cause stress. One study found that when voters saw their preferred candidate lying, the brain registered danger and immediately started looking for ways to resolve the conflict, even if that meant lying to themselves about what they saw. People believe what already fits their worldview.

This isn’t just a right-wing phenomena. I was reminded of this idea just today, when I read this Vox article by Zack Beauchamp about conspiracy theories on the left. The article describes a study in which people were given a math problem supposedly related to gun control. Whether people got the problem right depended on whether the solution aligned with their views.

Gladstone delves into writings from the past, citing William James, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Neal Postman, Hannah Arendt, Masha Gessen, Jonathan Swift, and others and exploring how their writings shed light on our time. I was especially interested in her discussion of Postman’s comparison of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. A recent bonus episode of On the Media included some of this discussion. I’ve shifted back and forth over which I think is more resonant, and right now, I think the problem is that we have a toxic combination—the constant stream of information too vast to sort through and the deliberate promotion of misinformation.

The Gessen discussion of Putin and Trump’s lies was also interesting. I’ve found myself bewildered at how quickly Trump’s supporters, some of them smart people, dismiss his lies as irrelevant or not lies at all. And I’ve felt a little off-kilter myself because my habit of looking for the kindest interpretation of people’s words is causing me to question what I’ve seen and heard myself. Gessen says that Putin and Trump use lies “to assert power over truth itself.” That seems about right.

Gladstone offers some general advice toward the end of the book, but this is mostly analysis of the problem. To me, it felt like a long version of the kind of commentary she sometimes does on the show. I’m happy for more On the Media, in whatever format I can get it.

Posted in Nonfiction | 7 Comments

House of Names

It was supposed to be her wedding day. That’s what Agamemnon said when he sent for his daughter, Iphigenia. Her mother, Clytemnestra, was overcome with joy at the prospect of seeing her daughter married to the great Achilles. But after all the preparations and the long journey, she learned the truth. Her daughter was to be a sacrifice. She turns on her husband, and her fury is irrevocable:

“Why will you kill her?” I asked. “What prayers will you utter as she dies? What blessings will you ask for yourself when you cut your child’s throat?”

Clytemnestra’s rage, cooled with time but still present, is the first thing we see in Colm Tóibín’s novel about this ill-fated Greek family. She tells of her pain and her plan to channel it into a plot against her husband. His murder at her hands sets of a new generation of plots, creating the same seemingly inescapable cycle of violence that Aeschylus presented in the Oresteia, although Tóibín puts his own spin on the story, inventing new characters and situations.

The novel focuses on three characters, Clytemnestra, her son Orestes, and her daughter Electra. Orestes is taken from the palace when he is young and caught up in the fantasy of war and valor. Years on his own, with just two friends, bring him back with different fantasies. Tóibín presents his story in the third person, making him seem more distant and a little less alive than the women. Electra, like her mother, tells her own story, and it’s full of grief and confusion and resolve.

These three characters are bound together by blood and history, but each one exists independently, as, of course, we all do. When the narrative moves from one character to another, we get pulled into that person’s version of events, forgetting our indignation at Iphigenia’s death and becoming angry at Clytemnestra’s treachery. And even though we get into each character’s head for a time, there’s a lot about them that we still don’t understand. Electra’s motivations toward the end are especially mysterious.

The presence (or not) of the gods adds to the mystery. The inciting incident was a sacrifice to the gods. But faith in the gods seems to be dying. Yet the dead remain, sometimes literally, speaking to their descendants. Maybe history is replacing the gods. Maybe people are just looking for a reason to do violence.

The end of the book seems to have brought about a resolution, but I’m not sure it’s a happy one. The survivors—so few of them!—are bound together, creating a new family that seems to be at peace. But there’s a sense that the trust between them is fragile. In a history so full of betrayal, will they always be on the alert? And if you’re always on the alert, can you ever be at peace?

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

The Secret Life of the American Musical

Besides reading, one of my favorite things to do is to go to the theatre. So I was pretty excited to read this book about American musical theatre by Jack Viertel. Viertel has had a long career working behind the scenes to develop and stage Broadway musicals, and he uses that knowledge to deconstruct how musicals work.

Each chapter discusses a different point in the presentation, starting with the overture and moving all the way to the curtain call. He notes common patterns that recur in typical Broadway musicals, such as the early “I Want” song, the secondary couple, and the settling-in sequence at the start of Act 2. Not all musicals follow the pattern he lays out—Viertel notes some exceptions, and I could think of others—but the basic structure tends to hold, even if some elements are eliminated.

The book focuses on classic gems and modern successes from the 1920s to today. There’s lot of discussion of Oklahoma!Gypsy, and Guys and Dolls. But Hairspray, The Book of Mormon, and Hamilton get plenty of attention as well. I’ve seen lots of the musicals he discussed, often on stage. (This is where living in the DC area, near the marvelous Signature Theatre comes in handy.) I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much if I weren’t familiar with so many of the shows addressed. Whenever he spent more than a paragraph or two on a show I haven’t seen, I tended to fade out. As it is, I wished I’d seen Carousel and Little Shop of Horrors, more recently and on stage, instead of the movie versions years ago.

I could think of only a handful of shows that I wish he’d addressed. For example, I would loved for him to explore how this structure applies to The First Five Years, with its unusual backward and forward plotting. But, on the whole, this book felt pretty comprehensive to me. He at least mentioned most of the big shows I could think of, even if only in passing. This is a book about American musicals, so Andrew Lloyd Webber only gets a couple of mentions. Ditto Les Misérables. 

One thing I really appreciated about this book was that he helped me get over some of my snobbery about contemporary movie-inspired musicals. Xanadu and Hairspray feel like guilty pleasures to me, even though I had a great time seeing them. Heck, I even enjoyed Carrie: The Musical! But I still have a tendency to snootiness about the proliferation of these shows. Why can’t we get an original story? Never mind that I’ve been unenthused about a lot of the new musicals I’ve seen that weren’t based on other material. And especially never mind that most of the classic musicals were based on novels or stories. Viertel’s treating Hairspray with the same seriousness as Gypsy helped me get over that.

I also liked the Viertel doesn’t hold back on his own opinions even when I disagreed. He has no love for Camelot, and I love that show and argued back in my head about most of his complaints. He also owns up to his own mistakes, such as his argument that “I Know Where I’ve Been” didn’t belong in Hairspray.

If you’re a musical theatre nut like me, this book is worth a look. It is sadly lacking in pictures, but there’s a great list of musicals at the back with Viertel’s recommended recordings. It made me want to go out and buy all the cast albums. Listening to cast albums was one of my favorite things when I was in my teens and 20s, but I’ve fallen out of the habit.

So, if you are a musical theatre fan, what are some of your favorites? I’ll start with my top five: Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and Into the Woods. 

And because I know there are bound to be Hamilton fans among you, here’s a delightful tribute to my favorite musical by the cast of Hamilton:

Posted in Nonfiction | 5 Comments

HHhH

This novel by Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the key architects of Hitler’s Final Solution.

Or, to be more accurate, it’s the story of the writing of the novel about Operation Anthropoid. As so it’s a story about the writing of history and the impossibility of boiling it down into a clear, novelistic narrative. Binet writes:

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell this story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect—and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it—ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy—the unmappable pattern of causality.

Binet examines how other writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, have tackled elements of the story he wants to tell, often criticizing their methods of, for example, putting thoughts in people’s heads that may or may not have been there. He wants to write a novel, to tell a story, but he also wants to get the details right. But sometimes he can’t help himself. So besides running up against the wall of history, he runs up against the tempting tools of the storyteller.

In a way, this book reminded me of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, about her attempt to research and write about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. In both books, readers learn a lot about the subjects of the investigation but also about the difficulty of getting at the truth behind real events. Because this book is classified as fiction, I’m left wondering how much of Binet’s narration about his research is, in fact, real. A similar question could be asked about Michael Chabon’s recent Moonglow, which felt altogether fictional to me in a way that this book did not. I believed Binet’s story about himself, and that ended up making me believe the story about Operation Anthropoid despite all of Binet’s complaints about how he’s not telling it the way he wants to.

The history actually takes up more space in the book than Binet’s musings about his writing. History related to the Holocaust is by its very nature horrifying, and that’s certainly true here. Much of the history presented was new to me, at least in its details.

Binet’s narrative, aside from two long passages at key moments, tends to be fragmented, jumping from one event or person to another, rarely offering more than a full page of uninterrupted narrative. I had trouble really settling into the book early on, even though I was interested, and I wonder if this fragmentation is the reason—it may be, but it’s also possible that I was in a distracted frame of mind that would make anything but the most immersive narrative hard to focus on. Either way, I did end up liking this, both for the story and for Binet’s approach to it.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

Big difference

mostly dead

… between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive, which about sums up where I’ve been for the last couple of months, so we won’t go into that, too depressing. At the moment, I am within less than two weeks of being finished with my semester, and then I am (sing it with me if you know the harmony) ON SABBATICAL until February. This is… welcome.

But what, I hear you ask, have you been reading in this land of the not quite perished?

Not as much as I’d like, my tiffins. But I did get through a few volumes. I don’t think I can catch up with reviewing all of them, unless something miraculous occurs, but if there’s any interest, I might get to a few of them. Tell me in the comments if you’d like me to go back and review any of these:

Playing in the Dark, by Toni Morrison

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi (Teresa did a lovely review of this quite recently)

The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers (I actually didn’t finish this one because I couldn’t bear it, but I did read 200+ pages of it, so I could give an adequate review of why I didn’t finish it, so there’s that.)

Stories, by Anton Chekhov (a collection of thirty, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Turning To One Another, by Margaret Wheatley

Country Driving, by Peter Hessler (Hessler writes beautifully about contemporary China.)

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

Essays,  by George Orwell

Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (a re-read, obviously — I must have read this twenty or thirty times as a child — but reading it with my book group in today’s atmosphere was very rewarding and enlightening.)

The Emily of New Moon series, by L.M. Montgomery (this was the first time I’d ever read this, and I will probably review it whatever you say, because I found reading it and comparing it to the Anne books so interesting and delightful.)

 

Golly, I’ve missed this blog! I’ve missed writing about my reading! I am eagerly looking forward to summer, and to reading what I like, and to spending time blogging. Tell me something nice about what’s going on with you: are your pets cute? Is the weather nice where you are? Did you recently get a cavity-free checkup at the dentist? Have coffee with a friend on the patio? Read a poet you hadn’t read before? Fill me in, fill me in.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

The Handmaid’s Tale

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale about 20 years ago. At the time, I found it more interesting than frightening. I was very familiar with the patriarchal side of Christianity, and, as frustrated as I was with their attitude toward women, I didn’t really see things going as far as they do in Margaret Atwood’s novel.

Now, however, the new mini-series and the new political reality in the U.S. has put The Handmaid’s Tale on everyone’s mind. And it got me wondering if I would find the book more frightening now than I did then. After rereading, I can say that I did find it more frightening, but not for the reasons you might think.

In case you don’t know, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near-future version on the United States, now called Gilead. An environmental catastrophe has made it difficult for women to bear healthy children. A simultaneous attack on the president and Congress caused a suspension of civil liberties and the eventual establishment of a theocratic state where behavior, particularly of women, is strictly regulated. The narrator of the novel, known only as Offred, is a handmaid. Her job is to have a healthy baby for one of Gilead’s commanders. She lives in the couple’s home, and each month there is a “ceremony” in which the commander attempts to impregnate her as she lies in the lap of the commander’s wife.

When it comes to the novel’s prescience, I can see it in bits and pieces. There’s the strict regulation on women’s dress and behavior, common across cultures in the past and present and, I’m sorry to say, probably in the future, too. This careful monitoring of behavior is often couched in terms of keeping women safe, a refrain that recurs in this novel. Throughout history, people have risen to power on platforms of fear, just as the leaders of Gilead do—and there’s reason to imagine that they’ve manufactured most of the fear to gain power.

As for the theocratic angle, I suspect that the powerful in Gilead manufactured their piety, just as they manufactured the fear. The goal is not godliness but power. It is, in my opinion, only manufactured piety that would take things this far. As infuriating as their views about women often are, most devout conservative Christians I know would find this world shocking and want nothing to do with it. However, plenty of power-hungry people use religious language to manipulate true believers and obfuscate what they’re really doing. Once people wake up, it’s too late.

So, no, I’m not afraid that we’re moments away from becoming another Gilead, although there are trends that bear watching, just as there have always been. What terrified me about this novel is what living in Gilead does to people, and how quickly and easily people adjust.

For much of the novel, Offred and others appear to be behaving as they do only because they’re afraid of being caught and punished. There are spies everywhere. But, as the book goes on, it’s clear that they’ve internalized much about Gilead’s ideals. We see it early on in Offred herself, when she is shocked at the exposed legs of some Japanese tourists. Before that, as soon as the patriarchy becomes policy, Offred senses a new barrier between herself and her husband, Luke:

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.

Later, Offred finds herself acting in ways she considers horrifying. Even the commander and his wife seem trapped in something they don’t much like (although they also don’t seem to regret it).  They’ve let something become normal that should not be normal—and that’s the cautionary tale.

The likelihood that specific elements of this dystopia will come to pass in the U.S. is less important to me than the notion that we need to cling to our ideals and see the truth clearly. We need to watch carefully, without assuming that the worst could never happen. The potential is always there, even if it doesn’t look exactly like Atwood’s vision.

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments

Fly Trap/Twilight Robbery

The follow-up to Frances Hardinge’s Fly by Night, finds Mosca Mye and her goose Saracen on the road once again with Eponymous Clent. At the moment, their travels are at a halt because Eponymous Clent is once again in jail. Mosca is ready to give up on him once and for all when she’s kidnapped. But that’s only the beginning. Once Mosca escapes, she and her friends end up in Toll, the only town where Clent and/or Mosca aren’t forbidden to go. And Toll might be the strangest place they’ve been yet.

In Fly By Night, I enjoyed Mosca’s sharp tongue and bad attitude, and that continued to be the case here. But this book has the added pleasure of Toll, a city unlike any I can recall encountering in fiction. Toll is actually two cities in one—a day city and a night city—and people belong to one or the other. Daytime Toll has the upper hand, as it exists in daylight and is the home of those born at times dedicated to the more auspicious of the Beloved, that is, the spirits who look after the world. People’s names are derived from the Beloved they were born under, so names mean a lot in this world. Mosca, born under Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies Out of Jams and Butter Churns, is viewed with suspicion. As a visitor to Toll, she’s allowed to live in the daylight city, but only for three days. After that, she’ll be forced to remain in the nighttime city, and there’s no good way out of there.

If you think that’s complicated, it’s only the beginning. Mosca and Clent’s adventures in Toll put them in the midst of conspiracies nested inside conspiracies. There’s the secret behind Mosca’s kidnapping, which she’s determined to avenge. There’s a plot to steal Toll’s “Luck,” which is the only thing keeping the city from falling from its precarious perch on a slanting cliff. There’s the political fallout from the radical takeover of Mendelion, thanks in part of Mosca and Clent in Fly by Night. An old nemesis re-emerges. And another. Plus!—Mosca trains a budding radical! Clatterhorses! Smuggled chocolates! A missing gem! Maybe the story is a wee bit too jam-packed with plot, but I loved encountering new delights around every corner.

I liked Fly by Night a lot, but I found it difficult at times to get a grip on the world Hardinge was constructing. The relationships between the guilds and the loyalties of various characters took a long time to get sorted out. In some ways, this book is even more complex, but I found it much easier to get into it. I would say that’s because I was already acclimated to this world, but Toll is almost a world unto itself. The elements of Fly by Night that make it into this book were some of the easier ones to understand.

And, of course, the most important element to carry over is Mosca herself. She’s the reason I wanted to read this book, and she continued to be the highlight. She’s peevish and sneaky and not altogether nice, but she’s good. She wants justice and right to prevail, and she’s not afraid to call out ridiculousness when she sees it. And if she can do something about it, she will.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Charlotte Sometimes

Charlotte Makepeace, the central character in this 1969 novel by Penelope Farmer, is all on her own at a new boarding school. But she was lucky enough to get first choice of beds in her dormitory room, at the encouragement of the prefect who was showing her around, so she selected the bed on wheels by the window. She had no idea how significant that choice would be.

As she awoke after the first night in her new bed, Charlotte found that everything had changed. England is still at war, and a younger girl named Emily treats Charlotte as her sister. If that weren’t strange enough, everyone seems to think that Charlotte is named Clare. Another day and night passes, and Charlotte is back to herself. And so it goes on, Charlotte zips back in time and becomes Clare for a day and then returns to be Charlotte. When Charlotte is gone from herself, Clare takes her place.

As you can imagine, living this way makes Charlotte seem more than a little bit odd. One day she can play the piano well, and the next day she can’t. She agrees to be a classmate’s best friend one day and ignores her the next. And then Emily starts asking questions.

Early on, Charlotte writes her name on her notebook, and she’s pleased to lay claim to her own identity. But being addressed as Clare, and treated like Clare, throws her, as it would anybody. She wonders again and again how much she is like Clare when she is in Clare’s body. She doesn’t have Clare’s memories, and she doesn’t have her talents, but if everyone assumes that’s who she is, will she become the person they expect?

This book is apparently the third in a trilogy, but it works fine as a standalone novel. I found the approach to time travel to be clever, particularly in that the time travel is not really the point. This is a book about a girl discovering who she is. However, I did wonder if reading the earlier books might have made me more attached to Charlotte as a character. Charlotte herself doesn’t really come to life. I think that’s partly due to the central question of the plot and Charlotte’s in between state, but my lack of attachment to Charlotte kept me from being as caught up in this book as I would have liked. It is a good book, though, I enjoyed it enough for the time I spent in it.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Classics, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments